Friday, 19 April 2019

Down In Flames

If you're a Canadian hockey fan, your dreams of seeing a Stanley Cup parade north of the border just got reduced by one-third. The Colorado Avalanche used blazing speed, solid defence, timely scoring, and some key goaltending to eliminate the top seed in the Western Conference as the Calgary Flames were doused in five games. Say what you want about these playoffs being wacky or insane, but the eighth seeds in each conference have proven that they belong as both Columbus and Colorado await their opponents for the second round. With Calgary on the outs, the Western Conference just got a lot more wide-open than it was one week ago.

One could have pointed to Calgary's goaltending as possibly being a weak point as the Flames entered the playoffs, but Mike Smith was anything but awful. Yes, he got beat soundly by an Avalanche offence that looked virtually unstoppable, but Smith made 188 saves in five games - an average of 37.6 stops per game - while his save percentage was a solid .917 in those five contests. If anything, Mike Smith's goaltending might have been the only reason why Colorado was held to single-digit scores in a few of those five games.

What has to worry you is that if Smith was good in these five games, what happened to the Flames' defence? This was a team that surrendered a league-low 28.1 shots against per game, but got blown up by the Avalanche. The league's ninth-best defensive team found itself in a world of hurt when it came to the final four games, unable to move the puck quickly enough or effectively enough, and most times they found themselves fishing it out of the net behind Smith.

We saw a handful of players from the Colorado Avalanche elevate their games to heights not many have seen before. Nathan MacKinnon will haunt the nightmares of the Flames for a while, Mikko Rantanen lit the lamp like he was testing the light bulb, and Tyson Barrie led a defence who simply wasn't content in letting any of the Flames set up shop on the Colorado zone. In short, this was another dominating eighth-seed performance against a team who was thought by most experts to significantly better in all aspects of the game.

Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog put on an offensive display tonight, accounting for three goals and seven points in the Game Five elimination of the Flames. They totaled nine goals and 21 points in the series compared to Calgary's top guns of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm who recorded just a pair of goals and five points in the series. Needless to say, Colorado's best players not only showed up, but they stole the show and laid waste to the Flames as they won four-straight games against the West's best team.

"For anyone who doesn’t think MacKinnon is one of the best, if not the best, they might want to look at this series because he can really turn it on up to another level," Flames captain Mark Giordano told reporters after the game. And the 37 year-old is right regarding MacKinnon, but the Avalanche got so much more as Colin Wilson and Matt Nieto each had two goals and two assists, fresh-out-of-college Cale Makar had a game-winning goal and an assist in three games, and veteran Ian Cole had three helpers. The Avalanche got scoring out of everywhere. The Flames, unfortunately, did not.

Calgary ranked second in goal scoring in the regular season behind the Lightning and tied with San Jose, but couldn't manage more than two goals in any game following the 4-0 win in Game One. One of the guys brought in to Calgary to help with a playoff push in James Neal was scratched in Game Five, basically signalling that his time in Calgary was assuredly over. No matter what changes were made and what line combinations were rolled out, the Avalanche had an answer for it. And it's why Calgary is going home.

A large part of the Colorado success came from the unmatched speed the Avalanche showed as the Flames often lost races to pucks and were forced to chase the game as the Avalanche seemed to transition seamlessly from offence to defence with that speed. When Calgary advanced the puck, the backchecking speed of the Avalanche allowed them to get all five players back in their own zone before Calgary could set up their offence. Like the Penguins of 2015, the Avalanche dare teams to outskate them, and the Flames simply weren't up to that task.

That speed also helped the Avalanche draw an insane amount of penalties on the Flames after Colorado entered the playoffs as the most penalized team this season. Instead, it was the Flames who found themselves shorthanded 25 times in five games - even with the rule book mostly erased for the playoffs - and it hurt the Flames at inopportune times. Game Three saw MacKinnon net back-to-back power-play goals in the 3-2 win. Game Four saw Rantanen tie the game on the power-play late in that one before he scored the winner in overtime. Game Fine saw the Avalanche ice the game and series with two power-play goals that made it 4-1 and 5-1. Speed kills, and it killed the Flames.

Finally, let's not forget Philipp Grubauer in all this either. Acquired on June 22 as a salary dump for the Washington Capitals, Grubauer was instrumental in helping the Avalanche make the playoffs down the stretch. His excellent play carried into these playoffs where he's now 4-1, has stopped 153 of 163 shots for a .939 save percentage, and is sporting a minuscule 1.90 GAA through the five games. Take away the four goals he allowed in Game One, and the final four games of this series saw Grubauer go bananas in stopping 125 of 132 shots. Even when Calgary got chances to score, Philipp Grubauer wasn't having any of it.

Like what Columbus did to Tampa Bay, Colorado was better than Calgary in all facets of the game, and that will undoubtedly result in wins. As we've seen with both eight seeds thus far, it's take nine games to eliminate the top-two teams in the NHL this season - true parity in the NHL as it seems anyone can beat anyone on any given night. Or, in the case of Columbus and Colorado, on four-straight nights.

The Flames were doused by the Avalanche. Who's next?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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